Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Power of Myth

On the heels of the earlier post regarding Wakanda, we get the comment to consider the example of the "university" at Nalanda, in India.

"Not so. The first Western-style university may have been founded in 1818, but the earliest major center of learning in India (known so far), which was structured more or less like a university (various schools with dedicated professors etc) was Nalanda, which was founded around 500AD, and flourished until it was sacked by islamics (big surprise) in the late 1100s.

Much of Indian culture and learning was suppressed or otherwise smothered by the British, but prior to that, India had been one of the wealthiest nations in the world, and highly developed. I'll grant that they didn't reach the level that Rome managed, but they did have sewer and irrigation systems (3000BC), some of the earliest steel processes (high-carbon Wootz steel prior to 500BC exported across Asia and Middle East) and Crucible steel 300-200BC also for export, earliest known plough 2300BC, earliest known stirrup 500-200BC, first articulation of Pascal's Triangle, and so on. Also, first demonstration of radio transmission 3 years prior to Marconi, the precursor to Chess, the development of cotton as a clothing fiber including early cotton gins, decimal place value and zero, and lots more.

The problem with India stems from entering a dark age when islam invaded in the 1100s, got somewhat better under the Mughals, and then sank again when the East India Company came in and dismantled most of India to finance various other initiatives, while beating the initiative out of the populace. Despite having fairly extensive trade with both East Asia and the Middle East/Mediterranean, India was always somewhat isolationist, so others easily took credit for their work, because India didn't have the expansionist bent that others did.

A considerable amount of discovery is being re-attributed to India, albeit not much since the Colonial period. 

So, let us examine this idea best, by simply granting the premise.

Not disputing nor gainsaying the existence of the offered example of Nalanda per se (which, I must observe, is far too linguistically close to Wakanda for many to resist witticisms at its expense, including your humble author), I doubt just the influence or significance of it. (TL;DR: none).

If it all was as claimed, one cannot but wonder how, short of an Indian sub-continental genocide then unseen in the world, and of which no record yet exists, a mere Muslim invasion could suffice to so destroy not just that lone university, but the entire concept of one, culture-wide, specifically in the minds of the very 2000 professors and 10,000 students who'd experienced it, functionally forever, such that they never had nor created another one, ever, anywhere, until British rule, despite being in presumably vigorous existence for a mere 700 years prior to their destruction(!).

It's as implausibly so as that Alexandria were the only library in the entire world until the Italian Renaissance. Which, of course, it was not.

If the university were there, and such an early great idea, one would expect there would be multiple of them, and the concept to have spread across all sorts of cultures, and destroying one would no more suffice to extinguish the model than destroying the first round wheel would do. There should be exemplars from India to Korea, let alone across Africa, were that tale any sort of true, just as in the Bolognese example in the West, to which multiple thousands of colleges and universities now trace their direct lineage.

Granting the premise of a therefore dubious history shows its unlikelihood, and the monumental flaws in the whole thing. It's a little like waving your hands and conjuring SMOD to explain the sudden inexplicable extinction of dinosaurs, instead of just offering the humble but intellectually authentic "we don't know".

I suspect revisionism is at the root, along with an addiction to the diversity mythos, and some fanciful imaginary elaboration on the part of those spreading the tale, along with the same sort of intellectual vigor that leads comic book authors and Hollywood screenwriters (often the same thing) to always posit some convenient and mystically hidden monastery in the Himalayas that possesses the hidden knowledge to alter time and space and make one a super-warrior, whether we're talking about Dr. Strange or The Dark Knight, or combining both myths into one, adding SMOD to the cake/screenplay recipe, and then positing the Magical Meteorite Made Of Unobtanium, to get us the exact Wakanda Myth itself, as in Black Panther.

Once we leave the suspension of disbelief inherent in a comic book or a mediocre screenplay, it doesn't hold up well in the light of day.

What we actually have in Nalanda is a Buddhist monastery, whose curriculum consisted of Buddhism, grammar, logic, and magic. Apparently they hadn't yet invented alchemy.

Supposedly, they discovered all sorts of things, and worked on such things as medicine, law, astronomy, and city planning. Despite the supposed 600-year headstart on Bologna, they never discovered planetary rotation, the telescope itself, or a plethora of other things that made Western civilization itself what it is. Like, as in SiG's original example, the entire constituent members of the Periodic Table of Elements, the building blocks observed for all matter in the universe.

Once again, much like the Soviet claims circa the 1950s and 1960s, Nalanda would become a convenient portmanteau, exactly like Mary Poppins' handbag, Merlin's suitcase from Sword In The Stone, or Hermione's purse in the latter Harry Potter flicks, into which one can posit that they discovered everything from baseball to movies to ice cream, and put in or pull out anything they like at their leisure contrary to all laws of the physical and intellectual universe, until those durned Muslims came in circa 1200 AD and kicked over the picnic table.

Like the joke about the psychic who gets creamed by a falling piano, apparently for all their attributed brilliance, they did not see that one coming.

This was a monastery, not a university; insular, self-absorbed, and primarily concerned with the arcana of Buddhism, not discovery nor learning, and wholly insignificant intellectually to anyone, let alone everyone, on that subcontinent. And its ultimate significance to any but a few random monks, during its heyday and after its destruction was effectively nil. One look at India from 1200-1800 would confirm that diagnosis in a heartbeat.

Try to tell me that a volcanic eruption that decimated Bologna and wiped out the university there in 1800 would have wiped out all of Western Civilization, for a glimpse into the magnitude of the feat attempted with the story of  poor Nalanda, wiped out by Muslim invaders circa 1200 AD. It's simply farcical.

This is the power of fantasy, not rationality, and we find it implausible and highly dubious that Nalanda was ever much of anything beyond a very insular Buddhist monastery, with so little influence on learning, or the culture itself, that the destruction of the one lone exemplar could eliminate any shred of influence it supposedly had on seven centuries of the Indian subcontinent during its existence, let alone afterwards unto the present day. It amounted to no more than a stain upon a dinner napkin in the grand scheme of world history, if even that much.

And lo and behold, it turns out that in the flight of some of its surviving acolytes to Tibet with the Sacred Scrolls, it's the exact exemplar of the mythos behind comic books and screenplays for The Dark Knight and Dr. Strange.

Color me shocked.

And once again, Western Civilization for the kill-shot win in the panorama of world history.


Anonymous said...


I know now.

You are SMOD.


MMinWA said...

I enjoy reading articles and need to look up words, to wit, portmanteau.

That's a pretty cool word.

You're much more plugged into movie culture, especially current, and use a lot of movie analogies that I can't reference. I have a library of about 3,000 VHS/DVDs, what in the world is your number?

Aesop said...

I stopped counting after 2K of them.

I have two self-built 4'x8' walls o' DVDs/BDs, another half as big with just TV, and stacks of the damned things hither and yon more than head-high.

Like books, they mate overnight when two or more are left together, and multiply like rabbits.

When I get going on the "on demand" order desks at the major studios for the ones not readily available, I shudder to think of the hernias I'll give the UPS guy.

Aesop said...

Oh, and a portmanteau is a stiff leather suitcase, typically of the type found strapped behind a saddle, opening into equal halves, and used to tote damned near anything into which may be fit.

Exactly like the referenced cinematic examples.

SiGraybeard said...

Great piece.

Nalanda is still orders of magnitude more believable than Wakanda.

Wakanda requires believing an advanced technological civilization could exist without a logistics support chain. No imports, no exports. No energy signature detectable from the outside.

I will continue to refer to Pascal's triangle as Pascal's, Euclidean geometry by his name, and the rest of science by those western names.

Unknownsailor said...

How the hell does this person claim that universities did not start in the west until the 1800s? Oxford was founded in 1096, and Bologna in Spain was founded in 1088. What was India like then, did they even have any buildings that were taller than 1 story?

Jim Scrummy said...

Hold it... I thought Wakandaland was every s-hole city in the USA? Oh, here in sunny DIE-VER-SI-FIED NOVA, it's going tribal. Fun times ahead!

Sixgun said...

@Unknown the claim was that the first western-style university was planted in India in the 1800s, not that universities started in the west in the 1800s. And yes, India had large multistory buildings in the 10th-11th century.

Sixgun said...

Apparently Aesop missed the part in the original reply where I pointed out that manyof the existing accounts of these large universities comes from information the scholars took back to China, Korea, Turkey, etc etc. They weren't monasteries in the western sense of a closed religious order. They were centers of learning, which attracted students from across the region.

And did it maybe occur to anyone that the reason the history of Nalanda and the other institutions sounds like the comic books is because the comic-book stories are based on the real events? Denying facts just because they don't fit a preconceived conclusion doesn't change them, and goes against the central point of the previous post.

Aesop said...

I missed nothing like that, Sixgun.

Which exact information underlines the fact that no growth of the phenomenon ever occurred, unlike the Bologna experiment. It was pushed out, but it never left on its own, nor had any influence beyond its own walls, if even there.

As for being centers of learning, that's like calling a restaurant a center of eating, rather than a disseminator of food.
What it's not, is a cooking school, and unlike a restaurant, a university is a center, not for learning, but for disseminating learning.
This function is the same thing that differentiates a bull from an ox, and a drone from a queen bee.

Nalanda manifestly disseminated nothing, created no endless chain of other Nalandas, and had zero cultural impact in India nor regions beyond, either in its heyday, or at any point since.

That's not a university; it's a place where wisdom and reason goes to die.

In that respect alone - the irrelevance of reality and dearth of dissemination of timeless truths - does Nalanda bear any similarity to modern Western universities, and that being only true in the aberrational last 40 years or so.

The comic books and movie scripts are based on (and nota bene, "based on" in that sense are weasel words big enough to drive a blockbuster screenplay through; ask me how I know) actual events, but the significance of the real events was nil; the comic books and movies posit that they hold the secrets of the universe.

No one's denying facts.
Nalanda existed, beyond argument.

It was, however, a curiosity, and not a university.
Words have meanings.

When you can show me 500 to 10,000 other Nalandas, and the unbroken chain of wisdom they discovered taught and passed down in widespread fashion culture-wide in 157 countries all tracing their existence to Nalanda et al, we can talk about what significance it's mere existence has in history.

That's the exact difference between the University of Bologna 1088, and Nalanda ever.

My only preconceived conclusion is that if someone's going to try historical revisionism, they should have the goods before they set out. That's a preconception of logical ground rules, not one of the historical results.
Otherwise one is just another Darwin trying to bootstrap God out of existence from butthurt and a dearth of actual evidence, and arguing from ignorance that the absence of documentation of a theory proves the truth of their conclusions.

In psychology, that's called a delusion; in philosophy, it's called a logical fallacy. In the university and laboratory, advancing a notion which cannot be disproven despite the total lack of evidence for it is not science, nor history; it goes by the accurate description of religious belief.

A man may be responsible for making the shoes, but he is never responsible for making the feet.
Thus whom they fit is, to him, a matter of complete indifference.

Anonymous said...

Nalanda was indeed a monastery, and a Buddhist one at that. The fact that it was a Hindi who wrote about the precursor to Algebra and using zero is just completely beside the point, right? Brahmagupta wasn't Buddhist, and he wrote his stuff down. His works are still known and can be purchased. ( He got a lot of HIS work from Aryabhata, another Hindi. Algebra and modern mathematics owe much more to the Greeks, with some input from the Muslims when Europe went through that spell of ("Learn anything but the Bible and you're doomed". The Muslims learned most of their mathematical knowledge from Aryabhata, Brahmagupta, and Bhaskara (another Hindi), and haven't seemed to move on from there in any noticeable way, as they haven't HAD a Renaissance yet. Since all STEM stems (ha) from mathematics, give it to the Greeks with a large side order from a few brilliant Hindi men who knew enough to write stuff down.